The two male protagonists in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen are Niels Bohr, famous among other things for his work on quantum physics and his theory of complementarity, and Werner Heisenberg, famous among other things for his work on quantum mechanics and his uncertainty principle. Both were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Equally important in this play is Bohr’s wife Margrethe. In the 1920s Heisenberg arrived from a broken Germany to work under Bohr in Copenhagen; in 1941 he came back to German-occupied Copenhagen for a conference, but also to speak to Bohr.
The subtitle of this play is Bohr, Heisenberg and the Uncertainty of History: this play explores the different possibilities of what might have taken place that evening and, while doing so, slowly revealing the personalities and the relationships of the three people involved. There is no record of the conversation they had, although there has been much speculation and some comments from the two men themselves. Bohr was a father figure to Heisenberg and much revered by Heisenberg and others, but maybe they also rowed and argued as father and son can do – about physics of course. Well, mainly about physics and about nuclear fission and the possibility of using it to make a bomb and about how well they worked together, or didn’t as the case may be. There are personal matters which are touched upon throughout the play – the death of one of the Bohr children; ‘trouble’ back in Germany for Heisenberg. So why did he come? Did he want to boast? Did he want to discuss the morality of building a weapon of mass destruction? In the end was he a sinner or a saint, or somewhere in between like most of us? Certainly, he worked inside Germany during WWII, but did he have some hand in placing someone in the German embassy in Denmark who saved thousands of Jews, including the half-Jewish Bohr? In 1941 he was on the winning side and powerful, yet it was Bohr who, having escaped to the States, ended up working on the atomic bomb. If you are a physicist, you will appreciate the research that has gone into this play; if like me you are not a physicist, you can enjoy the play for its portrayal of the dilemmas that people have faced down the ages in times of crisis.This is a stark, wordy play: a few chairs are the only props and the play stands or falls on the acting. This production definitely stands. Alexander Rain is an outstanding Heisenberg, making us laugh, making us squirm, moving us to tears as he talks about his broken country after the war. Michael Taylor’s Bohr seems calm on the surface but perhaps he was actually quite tyrannical. Through it all, Katherine Jones’ Margrethe is the voice of reason and truth, cutting through the verbiage and delivering home truths in a calm, sometimes icy, always composed manner. This production, playing appropriately at the Mathematical Institute, is an absolute gem.